Coel plays Arabella Essiuedu, a writer who is desperate to follow the success of her bestselling debut novel, and has her drink spiked after becoming separated from her friends on a night out.
She’s stumbling and staggering, slurring her words and losing focus. Then suddenly, it’s the next day and she’s back in her publisher’s office typing away on her laptop. She seems fine, until you slowly realise her cracked phone screen, the ringing in her ears, the trickle of blood running down her face.
I May Destroy You is the TV drama that people can’t stop talking about, and it’s gaining five-star reviews from critics across the board.
It’s the latest from Michaela Coel, award-winning actor and creator/star of Chewing Gum. While known for her comedy, I May Destroy You is Coel’s 12-part HBO-BBC series detailing the sexual assault of a woman on a night out in London.
Arabella has no idea what happened to her. Her mind draws a blank. This is the mystery on which the show is based, as Arabella slowly begins to claw back memories and experience flashbacks with gut-wrenching realisation.
I May Destroy You isn’t just Arabella’s story, though. As the series progresses, we meet her best friends Kwame and Terry (played by Paapa Essiedu and Weruche Opia) who raise their own questions of consent in modern dating, such as whether ‘stealthing’ (removing a condom during sex without consent) is rape, and being lied to about the nature of a threesome.
Coel created, wrote, executive produced, co-directed and stars in I May Destroy You. Two years ago, at the Edinburgh TV Festival, Coel revealed that she had been sexually assaulted. She spoke about going for drinks, then waking up the next morning to flashbacks of a sexual assault she couldn’t remember.
“I was working overnight in the company’s offices; I had an episode due at 7am,” she said. “I took a break and had a drink with a good friend who was nearby. I emerged into consciousness typing season two, many hours later. I was lucky. I had a flashback. It turned out I’d been sexually assaulted by strangers.”
What happened to Coel is the inspiration behind I May Destroy You and one of the reasons why she decided to write it totally solo.
“Telling my friends I was writing about my experience, and them sharing stories that made me realise how common it was… not necessarily having your drink spiked, but having your consent stolen during sexual interactions, and all the different ways that can manifest,” Coel told The Irish Times.
I May Destroy You is a show that delves into and confronts the complexities of sexual assault, all the forms it can take, and how victims navigate survival. For those reasons and more, it is undoubtedly the drama of the year.